A passion for education. Why does Chris Woodhead have so many enemies? What has he done wrong? Stephen Pollard on "the most misunderstood public figure of the past decade"

Class War: The State of British Education

Chris Woodhead <em>Little, Brown, 224pp, £14.99</em>

In December 2000, the Guardian reported on its front page that Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, was about to be appointed shadow education secretary and given a Conservative peerage. The story was wrong in every respect. But it is easy to see why the Guardian thought that it might be true, because it rested on an assumption taken as axiomatic by most of its readers that, with his views on education, Woodhead was a not-so-closet Conservative. In that respect, in tying together the Guardian's favourite bogeymen, the story was that paper's equivalent of a tabloid's black disabled lesbian vicar in royal paedophile cover-up.

It's easy to forget that Tony Blair's greatest single achievement as leader of the opposition was to make it possible for him to say that his top three priorities were "education, education and education", without being met by a cacophony of derisive laughter. For the entire postwar period up to that point, Labour's record in education had been shameful, wilfully destroying good schools in pursuit of an ideologically driven obsession with the comprehensive and mixed-ability teaching. (The same holds true for the Tories: as education secretary, Margaret Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any of her Labour equivalents.)

To shift the parameters of the debate so that Labour was associated not with the likes of Islington schools, but with a determination to secure high standards, was a remarkable transformation that played a vital part in creating the climate that made the 1997 landslide possible. But the achievement was not just Tony Blair's. It would not have been possible without David Blunkett. But the single most important element in this transformation was when Messrs Blair and Blunkett confirmed that they would keep Woodhead on as chief inspector.

Woodhead was probably the most misunderstood public figure of the past decade. Mention his name to most teachers, and they still come out in a rash. Mention it now to ministers and advisers, and the effect is much the same. But what was it that he was trying to do, which made him so unpopular with teachers and so easily traduced as a Tory? As Class War shows, Woodhead has only ever been driven by a passion for education - and for teaching. It is a sign of how warped the debate on education in this country has become, and how pernicious the influence of the National Union of Teachers and the education establishment remains, that a man who sought only to root out failure and praise success should have become so reviled.

In 1955, as Woodhead points out, 10 per cent of candidates achieved five or more good O-level grades. In 2001, 49.8 per cent gained GCSE grades A* to C. Either pupils are now much cleverer than they were or the teaching is much better in its practical effects. Or, just possibly, the exams are easier. Revealing that the emperor's new clothes do not exist is never popular but, unless we are to continue living in the land of make-believe, someone has to do it. It's not going to be politicians, because they want only to enjoy success. It ought to be teachers, because they are the professionals; but those who speak out are almost always ostracised. Take what happened last year to Jeffrey Robinson, who for the previous 16 years was the principal examiner in mathematics for the OCR exam board. In 1950, the maths pass rate was 22 per cent. In 1985, the final year of O levels, it had risen to 25 per cent. Since the introduction of GCSEs in 1986, the percentage achieving at least a C grade (the equivalent of an O-level pass) has more than doubled to 55 per cent. Robinson had the temerity to explain why: "The marks required to pass at each of the seven grades [A to G] have been steadily lowered during the Nineties." In 1989, the mark needed for a C grade in the higher-level paper was 48 per cent; in 2000, it was 18 per cent. It is incredible - one can now pass a maths exam by getting 82 per cent of the paper wrong. The response to Robinson's honesty was predictable: according to Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the NUT, "it is about time the moaners and groaners accepted that examinations are not getting any easier"; from ministers came the ritual congratulations to hard-working students; and from the exam board, the statement that "improvements in grades are a consequence of hard work and better preparation". Better to delude ourselves than to confront reality.

Early last year, Woodhead wrote a series of articles for the Daily Telegraph that were so full of bile, attacking almost everything in the government's education agenda, that they were counter-productive. They were easily dismissed as prompted more by his own frustrations and failures than by a sober desire to effect change for the good. Class War is different. For all Woodhead's anger and scornful tone towards the nonsense peddled by so many educationalists, it is almost impossible for a reader whose thought processes have not been taken over by the drivel that pours from the educational establishment not to see what is wrong. The book is full of examples, which are unfortunately far from unusual. For instance, John MacBeath (professor of education at Cambridge, no less) holds that, rather than teaching being about transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next, "we now know that learning does not work like that . . . Far from thinking coming after knowledge, knowledge comes on the coat-tails of thinking . . . therefore, instead of knowledge-centred schools we need thinking-centred schools." As Woodhead writes: "It is pathetic. Of course the acquisition of knowledge involves thought. MacBeath confuses the pursuit of knowledge with the inculcation of fact . . . What hope is there for state education when the academic who holds one of the two or three most prestigious posts in teacher education can write such twaddle?"

Woodhead's book will no doubt be panned by the usual suspects. But it is they who have got us into such a mess that, even after the beneficial effects of the national literacy and numeracy strategies, a quarter of primary school pupils still cannot read and write when they move to their secondary school. Woodhead should be proud that he has spent the past decade trying to get us out of the mess.

Stephen Pollard is a broadcaster and political commentator. He is working on a biography of David Blunkett

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